The Buffalo Nickel, also known as the Indian Head nickel, is an American five-cent piece (nickel) and collector favorite.
Probably the most beloved of all U.S. coin designs is the Buffalo nickel. That doesn’t mean it’s widely considered to be the most beautiful —that distinction probably goes to the St. Gaudens $20 gold piece. But the Buffalo nickel design is so popular, it’s been resurrected not once, but TWICE – the first time as a 2001 commemorative silver dollar, but now again in 2006 as a $50 gold bullion coin! And that’s not even counting the 2005 version of the “Buffalo nickel” where a reverse commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition features a bison. Not only that, to date, the buffalo has shown up on two other U.S. coins: the 2005 Kansas state quarter and the just-released 2006 North Dakota quarter.
It’s easy to understand why novice and seasoned collectors alike are fond of the 1913-37 Buffalo nickel. Not only does the obverse and reverse bellow out, “Old West,” but the overall coin design is uniquely American —especially the America that existed before immigrants of all nations came over. And because the Buffalo nickel has such an Old West kind of design, many new collectors assume the coin circulated in the days of cowboys, the Calvary, Native American villages and huge Buffalo hunts. But as you can see by the issue dates of 1913 to 1937, the America depicted on the front and back of the Buffalo nickel was largely a memory by the time it was issued.
Still, Americans love the Buffalo nickel. Not only is it the eye-catching design, but the fact that the obverse and reverse designs are so BOLD. The Native American head on the obverse almost completely fills out the face of the coin, while the bison-on-the-mound reverse is nearly as big and bold as the obverse. Consequently, the Buffalo nickel design leaps out at you in virtually ALL stages of wear! In fact, a Buffalo nickel almost has to have suffered major corrosion and be covered with dark muck before it’s rendered unidentifiable. That really cannot be said of any U.S. coin that circulated as much as did the Buffalo nickel.
That’s why it’s somewhat of a maddening paradox that so many Buffalo nickels have worn-off dates! Bold designs, but dates that wore off easily! It’s easy to see why: so much space was devoted to the obverse and reverse designs, that there was only a tiny space at the bottom of the obverse, below the Native American bust, where the date could be squeezed in. Because it did have to be “squeezed in,” it was struck in scrunchy low relief, and thumbs quickly obliterated the numbers.
The Buffalo nickel was designed by James Earl Fraser, a native of Minnesota. It’s said that Fraser used not one, but THREE Native Americans to pose for the obverse bust. Apparently, Fraser used the forehead of one, the nose of another and the jaw of another to create his striking Native American bust! As for the bison on the reverse, that was modeled by “Black Diamond,” a 1,300 pound bison who resided at the New York Zoological Gardens.
There were problems when the Buffalo nickel was first released in 1913. Specifically, the raised surface of the buffalo mound reverse tended to make the coin wear quickly AND cause problems with vending machine use. Consequently, the surface of the “mound” was sunk to a point where the bison now simply stood on a thin strip of land. That’s why there are two types of 1913 Buffalo nickels, simply known as Type I and Type II.
Other than the initial mound problems the Buffalo nickel was quite successful and circulated widely. For the most part, millions of each date and mintmark were struck. Because it’s not hard to track down most date/mintmark combinations, that is another reason for the Buffalo nickel’s popularity with collectors. EVERYBODY can own one!
That’s not to say the series presents no challenges. Scarce and expensive dates include the following: the 1913-S Type II, the 1914-D, the 1918/7-D overstrike, the 1921-S, and the 1937-D three-legged bison type.
The Buffalo nickel passed into history in the year 1938. That same year, the Jefferson nickel was introduced. Here too is an interesting U.S. coin transition year where one design type ends on the same year that a new design type makes its appearance. Of course, there’s hardly any question as to which nickel, the Buffalo or the Jefferson, that America has latched onto as “America’s Coin!”
There are certain characteristics to look for when grading Buffalo nickels. Obviously, the more detail in the face, hair and ribbon of the obverse Native American, the higher the grade. But the key seems to be the bison horn on the reverse. In Good condition, the horn will be worn off, while in Very Good it will be visible but worn flat. Even in Very Fine, only “much” of the horn will be intact. A horn only lightly worn is one of the key characteristics of an Extremely Fine piece! Also, because the typical Buffalo nickel circulated.. and circulated... and CIRCULATED... it’s simply not often that you see a Buffalo nickel with mint luster. When you do, they are absolutely beautiful coins. Amazingly, common-date Buffalo nickels with mint luster (About Uncirculated and Uncirculated) still retail for just $10-$20! Folks, that HAS to be considered a great deal worth looking for!
So popular are Buffalo nickels that even those DATELESS Buffalos mentioned earlier, are sought after! Though a seasoned collector would consider such a nickel almost valueless, they are widely used on jewelry, particularly Native American jewelry and accessories. Which is why even “worthless” Buffalo nickels with no date don’t have much trouble finding buyers!